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Delivery drones? Believe it when you see it

Jeff Bezos' announcement that Amazon hopes to eventually deliver packages to customers using little flying drones has caused a mini-uproar. From journalists to members of Congress, people are telling Bezos, "Wait just a gosh darn minute, mister!"

Among those forwarding legislation to deal with the issue is Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas). In comments on the floor of the House of Representatives, Mr. Poe said, "Think of how many drones could soon be flying around the sky. Here a drone, there a drone, everywhere a drone in the United States. ... The issue of concern, Mr. Speaker, is surveillance, not the delivery of packages. That includes surveillance of someone's backyard, snooping around with a drone, checking out a person's patio to see if that individual needs new patio furniture from the company."

In the Senate, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has proposed a drone privacy bill. "Before drones start delivering packages, we need theFAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public," Mr. Markey said in a statement.

A columnist in the Seattle Times, taking it as a given that Bezos' scheme will get off the ground, said it's just another example of a big corporation getting to do whatever it wants, in defiance of the public interest.

A bit more dispassionate, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik listed the big hurdles Bezos will have to leap before his "octocopters" start raining packages on the driveways and stoops of America, including safety concerns, privacy issues and the possible prohibitive cost of building and maintaining a fleet of drones.

Before the angst level gets too high, it is worth noting another big limitation to the plan as Bezos described it when he talked to Charlie Rose on last weekend's "60 Minutes." Though, as Bezos said, 90 percent of Amazon packages are under the five-pound carrying capacity of the drones, there are far fewer than 90 percent of customers who live within the drones' maximum 10-mile range.

Nick Barber, a writer for PCWorld, points out that the drones have to take off from Amazon delivery centers, almost all of which are located far from major population centers. "That means if you're one of the 10,000 people who live in Coffeyville, Kan. or Campbellsville, Ky., then you're in luck," Barber writes. "But residents of New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and other big cities can forget about Prime Air service unless Amazon expands its distribution footprint."

Still, Jeff Bezos is famous for doing things that lose money while building market share. He's also a guy who gets excited about new ideas, so it would be wrong to assume this is just a publicity stunt (although it has reaped a big harvest of publicity for Amazon). Bezos is eager to try just about anything to keep his company on the cutting edge. But it's way too early to get overwrought about a delivery drone dropping a book on somebody's head or peeking into bathroom windows.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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